Saturday, January 31, 2009

On "Going Away Shoes" by Jill McCorkle (7103 words) ***

I've known of Jill McCorkle for years, but this is the first time I've ever managed to get around to reading something of hers. Here is a polished and professional writer if there ever is one. I love how McCorkle weaves this story around a few key phrases ("pull it"), around soap operas, around family and race. But most of all what I like about this story is how we get a portrait of a woman trapped by duty and obligation. The pacing of this story is sometimes slow, like those summer days when I was a kid at home, watching my own mom clean or wash clothes, while my sister and I sat around watching television game shows, or worse, soap operas, just waiting for the day to end, for something more interesting to come along--I imagine Debby Tyson, this story's main character, would understand. Read the story here at Blackbird.

On "Life on the Hyphen" by Gustavo Perez Firmat ****

This was my second time reading Perez Firmat's book on Cuban American culture, and my third time through the book. The first time, I merely skimmed, slowing down for the introduction to get the gist of the argument so that I could discuss it among other books and concepts in a presentation I had to make about Cubans in the United States in a graduate class. But my interest was peaked, and a few years later, when I came across the book in a used bookstore, I picked it up for cheap and read it from start to finish. Now, eight years later, I picked it up again, and over the last few weeks have been reviewing the materials inside.

At its strongest, the book gives readers a view of some prominent people in the Cuban American world. The chapters on Desi Arnez, Gloria Estefan, and Oscar Hijuelos are the most interesting to me, perhaps because these are the people with whom I'm the most familiar. Getting more background about their lives and art, in addition to a thorough analysis of what that art says about the one-and-a-half generation that is much of Perez Firmat's focus--those born in Cuba but who grow up in the United States. This is literary criticism and this is, at times, written university professor speak, so it's not quick reading, but it's enjoyable nonetheless.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

On "Accidents" by Brock Clarke (4270 words) ****

Here's a story from Brock Clarke's first collection What We Won't Do. It's a story very similar to "The Fat," which is also featured in that collection. While I like that story more, it is no longer available online. However, that's just a reason to go out and buy the book, if you haven't already, especially if you like "Accidents." Both stories involve a journalist in a small town and his editor and a marriage gone bad. What's interesting to me, about "Accidents," is to see how Clarke takes essentially the same situation and writes something distinctly different from that other piece. Read the story here at the Mississippi Review.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

On "Blueberries" by Scott Bowen (4694 words) ***

Luckily I've never had the experience of vomiting while on a date. That alone seems worthy of a story. And the story of such an experience is yet to be written, because this story ends up being so much more than the simple awkwardness that would result from such an occasion. Early on, I found myself at times frustrated at the seemingly inhuman actions of the story's characters, and then--and then it begins to make sense. This is a story about insanity, about memory, about slowly losing one's mind, written from the point of view of the one losing it. Interesting reading here at Prick of the Spindle.

On "Panama Fever" by Matthew Parker ***

Here is the story of the building of the Panama Canal in all its ugliness and glory, mostly, to me, the former. Engineering feats were essential, of course, and what was eventually accomplished amazing--a channel that cuts shipping time across the United States, indeed, across the two oceans, in half. But here too is a story of the same lack of social justice that plagues humankind and that, in my view, is a spot on our own nation's name. The first half of the book recounts the efforts of a French company to build the canal and of its eventual bankruptcy. Thousands of poor French lost their savings in the investment. The son of the main instigator of the canal ended up in jail, a scapegoat, the one on whom revenge was reaped, though the family itself lost all its own money in the company's eventual downfall (a warning perhaps to those of us who would too quickly throw stones at executives whose companies fall apart under their stewardship--it's not always criminal wrongdoing but simple bad economics).

Enter the Americans. Sure, the French man who pushed the project ended up in jail and got nothing out of the canal, but some other French cronies would work up a deal whereby they would sell the canal to the American nation and thus recoup their losses (meanwhile, most of the original small-time investors were shut out). Never mind that the Americans for years had favored a canal through Nicaragua--these French executives would lobby hard and eventually win.

One major problem would be the nation of Colombia, which Roosevelt would take care of by helping the Panamanians, who never had been totally happy as part of Colombia, to rebel and set up their own nation, and then, who he would subsequently betray by hastily signing--with a French man representing Panama during its transition to its new government--a treaty that essentially divested Panama of control of the canal and the zone around it. After Roosevelt defended his actions to Congress, one congressman said congently, "You have shown that you were accused of seduction and you have conclusively proved that you were guilty of rape." Ten years of building the canal would subsequently consist of employing black Caribbeans at next-to-nothing wages to dig the huge trench while white American overseers worked higher-wage supervisory jobs, no matter the degree of experience of either. The canal, on this level, simply leaves me disgusted. A great and useful feat, to be sure--but can ends ever justify means?

As a book, Parker's portrait is a great summary of the events and a well-told story, though it left me a bit cold. I'm not sure why. Perhaps, it is my disgust with much of what happened. Perhaps also, even given its great attention to the little guys doing the work, I didn't feel like I got a deep sense of the personal psychology behind some of the big actors or of the regular folks themselves. Hard to say why I felt this way; still, I would definitely recommend it to someone looking for a basic history of the canal's building.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On "The Cut-Glass Bowl" by F. Scott Fitzgerald (7400 words) *****

Here's my favorite story from Fitzgerald's Flappers and Philosophers. I've always been curious why a story like "The Offshore Pirate," which I consider pretty ridiculous (i.e., silly, in a bad way), get anthologized so often while this one is ignored. It may not have the easily identifiable characters, types, time, and plot that a classic like "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" has, but what it has is something beyond that. I love how the bowl in this story, a wedding gift, becomes an character in and of itself, taking on an almost malevolent will of its own. And I love how, through the bowl, we get a summary of this couple's entire life together. Read the story here.

On "Present at a Hanging and Other Ghost Stories" by Ambrose Bierce (17,528 words) ****

I haven't read many of Ambrose Bierce's writings save the heavily anthologized "Hanging at Owl Creek Bridge" and a few scattered definitions in his Devil's Dictionary, but I can say that I'm going to read more. Give it a year or so, but he's on my list to be read with others of his era, and deservedly so. This short book of ghost stories is reminiscent of many a campfire tale. Or really, for me, I think of such stories not around a campfire but in a dorm at summer camp. The lights are out, and if there's anything, it's merely the eerie glow of someone's flashlight pulsing from underneath a sleeping bag. We're supposed to be sleeping. But instead, one of the folks in the dorm is up telling a story, trying to get us scared. And then . . . the counselor wanders by and we all get into trouble. When he's gone, we go back to telling stories--until he returns. I can't say our storytelling ever reached much of a crescendo, since most were interrupted by the enforcers. Still, these are the kind of stories I imagine being told, complete with endings.

One of my two favorites in this book is "A Man with Two Lives," the story of a man who is killed and returns to the dumbfoundment of those around him. The story has a surreal quality about it insofar as it's not really a ghost story but a story of a person who somehow manages to return to life. The other is "At Old Man Eckert’s," the story of three friends who agree to visit a haunted house--one of them doesn't make it. It's ending words are particularly creepy. All of the stories are short, easily read in five-minute bathroom sittings. You can grab a copy here at Project Gutenberg or even download the audio version here--it's quite well read.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

On "Love So Divine" by R. G. McCartney (1262 words) ***

Benumbed prose. A story told in a rather sterile voice. An odd technique, one might think, for a love story. But that's exactly what this is--and the tone is wholly suited to what unfolds. I love how McCartney has taken an easily oversentimentalized event and, through the choice of exotic location juxtaposed with the matter-of-fact prose, made it into something readers can wholly understand and without any of that sentimentality. Read the story here at Big Ugly Review.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On "Pagan Night" by Kate Braverman (5063 words) *****

Want to keep your boyfriend? Want to keep doing junk? Want to get rid of a baby? These are the obsessions of this story. Some writers shock you with technique. Some writers shock you with subject matter. Some do both. Read the story here.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

On "Any Given Monday" by Laurie Koozer (6409 words) ***

This story really hooked me. It's also got me thinking about sending panties out to random people (the only problem would be buying them--I don't think, as a guy, I can pass off the thin sister thing as that would probably be kind of creepy). One does have to wonder what could possibly go right in this poor lady's life, however. Read the story here at Storyglossia.

On "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson *****

About two decades ago, I was watching Jeopardy with a friend. There was a category on one particular segment: recent best-sellers. Both of us worked at a bookstore at the time, and we named each book off correctly and quickly. Those days are gone. I no longer work in a bookstore, and I don't pay that much heed to what's on the best-seller list and have a hard time even keeping track off what's new and notable. Nevertheless, I think Larson's book was a best-seller sometime last year. And I understand why. Having heard the premise, I was naturally attracted to it.

It's the story of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the Columbian Exposition, completed for the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's voyage to America. The fair is the origin of Columbus Day in the United States, a holiday I remember getting out of school for when I was a grade school student (I don't recall ever getting it off for work or for school once I was older). It's also the origin of the Ferris wheel--the first one was built by William Ferris for this exposition, a huge one, that carried hundreds of people in each car. It was built as the exposition's centerpiece, just as the Eiffel Tower had been built as the Paris World's Fair centerpiece only a few years before.

Reading about how this exposition came about, about the marvelous architecture that was put up in less than a couple of years, I was entranced. The story reminded me, in fact, of my own job, editing books. There, those of us who work in production, I often asked to do similar miracles, to put out books within what seem to be impossible time frames. Often, we do. And often, those time frames are made more difficult by our own coworkers, as was the case with the fair, where the first six months of construction and planning was wasted arguing over where to even put the fair within Chicago. That so much could be built within so little time, that so many bad odds could be overcome, seems amazing--and makes putting out a book actually quite easy. (Cost is always one other issue, and on that, the planners did have an advantage in that virtually no dollar was spared. The fair only made back what it cost to build in the last twenty days of its existence.)

The other story that Larson tells is that of a serial killer who used the fair to prey on mostly innocent people. He builds a hotel that becomes a death trap--rooms with gas pumps in them, with doors that lock soley from the outside. And he builds it largely with borrowed money. He kills his victims for his own pleasure, listening to them suffer, and then he makes money on them--selling their bodies for medicine, collecting life insurance, and so on. This story, I found, surprisingly less compelling than that of the fair. Certainly, such an audacious character is interesting at some level, but fairly early in the book, I became so disgusted by him that I wasn't sure I wanted to know any more. I found myself dreading each next passage about him. At least ten people died by his hand, though some people estimate as high as a couple of hundred (the true number is unknown but likely somewhere in the twenties or thirties).

That Larson incorporates the latter story with the fair, however, as well as with stories of the Chicago mayor's assassination and with the country's economic woes (I couldn't help but identify the Panic of 1893 with our own current fiscal problems), makes the story of Chicago's fair all the more interesting, however. It becomes a story not only of putting on a fair but of life near the turn of the century and of the city of Chicago.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

On "Flight from Tomorrow" by H. Beam Piper (8154 words) ***

A deposed dictator gets away--in a time machine. He'll be back (in Arnold's words)! He's coming back to reap revenge. But there's a problem. The time machine takes him back further than he intended--and then it stops working. So here he is, stuck, in the 1950s. Easy enough, one would figure, for a person with a lot of two-thousand-years-in-future tech savvy to take advantage of virtually anyone. (Though I keep thinking I'd know even less than most people in the 1750s knew about day-to-day getting along. I may know how to use some tech things, but I don't know how to make them!) However, for our dictator, there's a slight problem: all living things in the place where he landed appear to be suffering from disease. Will he succumb and die too? Read the story here at Project Gutenberg, or listen to it here at Project Gutenberg Audio.

On "Five Sci-Fi Short Stories" by H. Beam Piper ***

I haven't read too much science fiction, though I intend one day to get down to reading a list of the absolute classics, much as I did with mysteries and pulp fiction. In the latter case, I actually became a kind of fan. I learned to appreciate a genre I hadn't paid much attention. Certainly, there is plenty of bad crime fiction, but that's not enough reason to dismiss the whole lot. I figure the same is likely true of science-fiction.

About a decade ago, I read Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though I found the writing style to be pretty unmemorable. What intrigued me about it were the plot and the ideas. And I guess, really that's what science fiction usually excels in--ideas or well-crafted plots. Being a literary fiction person, plot is not something I typically read for; though I do enjoy something that is well put together that way, I'm not motivated generally to seek out such works.

I would say that Piper's work falls into that sci-fi mode. Of the five stories presented in this collection, two I could have probably gone without reading. The plots were derivative, the ideas not terribly fresh. But I was digging on Piper by the third story. Now, suddenly, the plots took on a freshness reminiscent of a good movie. A dictator travels in a time machine and ends up in a place he didn't expect with unexpected consequences. A set of farmers chase after some wild creature, little realizing just what that creature is. A young man's return from education on another planet promises much for his home--or maybe nothing at all. In this latter story, the people's hopes become a taking off point for discussion on what gives us hope and how real that hope is. If Piper's stories faulter anywhere, it's probably in that he sees a need to explain the pseudoscience to his readers. Maybe sci-fi people get into that; for me, however, if it's not real science, I'm not particularly interested in the theoretical aspects of space travel.

Piper's collection is in the public domain. You can listen to the stories here.

Monday, January 5, 2009

On "The Novelist" by Tao Lin (1503 words) ****

Of the many stories in Tao Lin's online collection Today The Sky is Blue and White with Bright Blue Spots and a Small Pale Moon and I Will Destroy Our Relationship Today, this concluding one is my favorite. It's about, well, a novelist, and about the way in which writers and artists tend to turn anything and everything that is an aspect of their lives into art, sometimes self-consciously so. Perhaps, as this story hints, we do art to add meaning to our lives, which, like the events in this story, are generally pretty nonconsequential, pretty mundane, unless of course they're in a novel--or about to be. Read the story here at Bear Parade.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

On "Informed Consent" by Plastik/Jimi Five (82 words) ***

Plastik Press specializes in stories about plastic surgery. That's right. If you're into that, then this is the site for you. For my part, I'm not sure if what's appealing about these stories is the writing itself or the accompanying pictures, but appealing they are. "Informed Consent" clocks in at under one hundred words but manages to sum up the heart of a relationship, putting new meaning into an old saying. Read the story here.

On "Angels" by Denis Johnson ***

Johnson's Jesus' Son is one of my favorite books. How great that book is really hit me, though, when I started seeing stories from it in anthologies--"weaker" stories, stories I hadn't really paid that much attention to within the collection where some stories are so strong that they overpower others. But when the smaller stories, these ones I didn't notice within the collection amid so much other greatness, were pulled out and appreciated by themselves or in conjunction with other writer's work, which could barely match up, I was floored. What makes that collection so amazing is that each story is almost like a poem--so beautiful in its imagery and precise in its word choice--and yet also incredible in terms of great storytelling.

All that said, I've never been attracted to Johnson's longer works. I've picked up novels of his before and have never gotten past the first two or three pages. Admittedly, this isn't giving a work much of a chance, but this was in bookstores, in places where I had to decide quickly what was worth my spending a few dollars to join my reading for the next couple of months. (This was when I lived in Fort Worth--or rather, lived barely a few yards outside Fort Worth [the half of the apartment complex I lived in was outside the city limits]--and couldn't get a library card. Used books became my lifeline for a few years. I had to be careful what I purchased, had to make those books were worth it and would last a good while.) These days, with a library card in hand (so that I can actually afford to read as much as I do), I'm a bit more open to discovery and to trying new things.

Angels came to my attention--again--through Francine Prose's book How to Read like a Writer. That book was amazing in terms of making one excited about writing, making one think writing matters, and also making one excited about the books she discusses. Last year, I finally got back to Jane Austen, whose work I couldn't stand in high school and whose work I never managed to get past page 50 in. Pride and Prejudice took a while to get into, but by the time I'd gotten half way, I was singing its praises. Wonderful writing.

Prose analyzed the opening of Angels and made me want to go back and give this book a real try. And so it joined my list of reading, and now it's read. But my feelings about are pretty much the same as they were, years ago, before I read it. Fine, accomplished writing, but for whatever reason, the book didn't speak to me. Moments toward the end, I did care for the main man in it, though mostly I didn't feel much sympathy for him throughout; I never did quite understand Jamie, why she would like Bill, why she would leave her husband (boredom?), why she would be attracted to this underworld. And my lack of understanding, in turn, affects the way I feel about this work